The deputy homeland security secretary said repeatedly Thursday that he couldn’t remember conversations in which he was accused of giving special treatment to high-profile Democrats seeking visas for wealthy foreign clients — but did say he could recall Republicans making the same kinds of inquiries.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the deputy secretary whose previous tenure as the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is under scrutiny, said when he did intervene in visa cases, it was to make sure his agency was following the law, not to give special treatment.
Defending himself for the first time in public, weeks after a scathing inspector general’s report, the deputy secretary said he had taken steps to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest in the cases involving Democrats, but acknowledged a startling number of his own employees thought he broke ethics rules anyway.
“I am responsible for the perception my employees have for the work I do, and I bear that responsibility, and I regret the perceptions my work created,” Mr. Mayorkas told the House Committee on Homeland Security, which called a hearing to look into accusations against the No. 2 man at the department.
Among the accusations contained in a 99-page report from Inspector General John Roth are that Mr. Mayorkas intervened in three cases where he was lobbied by the high-profile Democrats. In each instance Mr. Mayorkas overruled his own career employees and gave favorable treatment to the Democrats’ clients — treatment they would not have gotten had he stayed on the sidelines.
“This is your day to respond to these accusations, sir,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and the committee chairman.
Mr. Mayorkas told lawmakers he couldn’t remember many of the conversations the inspector general said happened, but he said his intervention in each case was designed to ensure his agency made the right decisions.
He said he usually got involved because the investor program in question, the EB-5 visa, was so broken, and his employees were having trouble squaring their duties with what was required by law.
“If a concern with respect to our adherence to the law is raised, it is our obligation to address that concern,” the deputy secretary said.
Mr. Mayorkas also said that while the inspector general highlighted his intervention in response to Democrats, Republicans had also lobbied in at least one of the three cases. He said members of Congress from both sides of the aisle make 1,500 inquiries per year about EB-5 cases — the most of any program administered by USCIS.
Prodded by Democrats on the committee, Mr. Mayorkas ticked off the names of Republicans from Mississippi who lobbied on one of the three cases the inspector general cited for undue influence.
The hearing was contentious from the start, as when Mr. McCaul tried to put Mr. Mayorkas under oath to tell the truth during his testimony.
“I find that’s unusual and unnecessary,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, New Jersey Democrat, who wondered why Mr. McCaul didn’t also swear in the inspector general at a previous hearing where he laid out the findings about Mr. Mayorkas.
She and other Democrats attacked the inspector general, accusing him of shading his findings by failing to point out that Republicans were also involved in lobbying on EB-5 cases.
Republicans said the focus should be on Mr. Mayorkas. They said they were surprised he was unable to recall key details about his communications with the high-profile Democrats.
In one instance, the inspector general said Mr. Mayorkas promised to have his staff give a weekly briefing to Sen. Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, on applications from investors in a Las Vegas casino project. Mr. Mayorkas said he didn’t recall agreeing to that request.
The inspector general also highlighted instances when Mr. Mayorkas said he was communicating with Democrats at the behest of his superiors, though no evidence of those requests was found.
Mr. McCaul said Mr. Mayorkas violated the ethics rules he himself put in place at his agency, and he asked what consequences there have been.
Mr. Mayorkas said he has been given a talking-to by his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, about avoiding the appearance of conflicts. And he said Mr. Johnson has imposed new rules designed to ensure decisions are made without prejudice.
Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Mayorkas blamed the EB-5 investor visa program itself for the problems, saying it was broken and decisions were inconsistent.
To earn an EB-5 visa, investors must commit at least $500,000 to a project that will create at least 10 jobs. That means USCIS officers have to make tough judgments on complex business transactions that are often beyond their understanding.
The program has grown under Mr. Obama, with initial applications rising from about 1,000 petitions a year when he took office to nearly 11,000 petitions in fiscal year 2014. The program approves about 75 percent of initial applications.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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